Higher Education Needs Fixing. Will Obama’s Plan Help?
Educators have already raised objections to President Barack Obama’s just-announced plan to “shake up” higher education. Speaking out against the ever-rising cost of college, Obama proposed a new official college ranking system that would be based on whether students are getting “value” for their tuition dollars.
“We have got a crisis in terms of college affordability and student debt,” the President (who has often mentioned the amount of student debt he and the First Lady had to pay off after completing their studies) said to students at the State University of New York in Buffalo on Thursday. “The soaring cost of higher education has become a barrier and a burden on too many middle-class families.”
Obama spoke of the “value” a college education can offer in terms of accessibility and consideration of graduates’ post-college earnings; educators are concerned that no mention was made of the content or the quality of the education that a student receives.
College Ratings and Rankings
Higher education in the United States is “highly fragmented” and rating the thousands of colleges and universities by the criteria Obama has proposed (based on their having similar missions) will be a daunting task. It is arguable that an informal rating systems of colleges and university exists. Obama indeed criticized such private-sector rankings such as US News & World Report, saying that they have been “sometimes rewarding universities for raising costs.”
Colleges and universities routinely deny that these rankings affect their spending and other decisions. Reports of schools (and not unprestigious ones) sending inflated SAT scores to publications like US News & World Report are a sign of how pressured they feel to compete in college rankings and to get the best students. Many schools have embarked on extensive renovations of their campuses (taking out huge amounts of debt in the process), the better to attract students.
College is a business in the United States and Obama’s plan addressed common frustrations at a time when too many students are graduating with limited job prospects and huge amounts of debt.
Obama’s New Plan For Higher Ed
Under the new plan, student aid would be directly linked to the White House’s ratings. Students at more highly performing schools would receive larger Pell Grants and more favorable rates on student loans. Colleges and universities would be rewarded for enrolling large numbers of students eligible for Pell Grants.
Obama’s plan also seeks to toughen the requirements under which students would receive aid, calling for them to complete a certain percentage of their classes before receiving continued funding. Currently, students receive aid in a lump sum at the beginning of the semester. Under the proposed change, students who dropped out of a class would no longer receive funding — would not continue to receive federal aid if they had ceased to attend school.
The plan also calls on schools to innovate, whether by redesigning courses to rely on competency-based learning rather than “seat time” (basing student learning on credit hours earned), use technology for student services and make use of massive open online courses, all with a view to “[spur] innovation in a way that drives down costs while preserving quality.”
Americans Owe a Trillion Dollars in Debt From College Loans
As educators point out, Obama’s plan did not address some of colleges’ and universities’ own criticisms about the state of U.S. higher education, including issues such as a lack of funding for programs, ever-growing tuition and the use, more and more, of adjunct faculty.
Such concerns can rather be seen as signs of why higher education is desperately in need of some kind of change, from how much it costs to how students access the courses they need to prepare themselves for a career.
A trillion dollars: that’s the oft-repeated amount of debt on college loans that Americans owe. $26,000 is the amount that the average student owes after graduating, as family incomes have only risen 16 percent in the past three decades while tuition at public universities has risen 250 percent. For graduating seniors, a session with a financial aid officer is now as routine as choosing a class ring (if you can afford it). The president’s plan addresses the issue of student debt by saying that all students should qualify for an option that only some students can now tap into, capping student loan repayments at 10 percent of their income.
Whatever you think of Obama’s plan — that it imposes too many external standards and more “government meddling” on schools, that it is wrong to tie financial aid to academic performance – it is an attempt to shape up and change a system that is not working and to “prod” colleges and universities to do things differently for the sake of students and their families.
Those with only a high school diploma earn only half the income of college graduates and face higher rates of unemployment. We all agree that having a college degree matters. We need to figure out how to make that happen for students and without saddling them with a lifetime of debt to a school they left a long time ago.
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